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Bikes and Hikes

The Otter Trail: A ‘lonely crowded walk’

The mouth of the Bloukrans River encountered on day 4: hikers are advised to cross at within half an hour of low tide, or take their chances! (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Having now walked the Otter Trail, I can confirm that it is as beautiful as any hike you will encounter, anywhere. As you go under the wooden arch that marks its start at the Storms River mouth in the Eastern Cape, it’s like jumping on to a chute that enters into another physical world, an encounter with unspoilt nature.

For centuries poets and painters have tried to capture the essence of natural beauty. But the truth is, its diversity, fecundity and complexity make measures and comparators impossible. I’m not aware of a Natural Beauty Index that can rank a hike in the way that, for example, we rank countries on the Human Development Index.

Where do you start, where do you end?

Ugliness is discernible, but natural beauty is as much subjective; it’s what you and you alone see or feel or hear or smell, and how your soul receives it, as it is the objectively verifiable object of your attention.

These thoughts came to mind as I reflected on the mystique around the Otter Trail, a hike that sits at the apex of hikers’ dreams, reputed to be the most beautiful 45km hike in South Africa.

But despite the mythology of the Otter many potential hikers are deterred, not by its length or sometimes difficult terrain, but by the knowledge that such is its reputation, the waiting list for bookings is said to be up to a year. Ironically, because there’s a waiting list people choose to wait and the dream gets postponed to some maybe day. Postpone it for another year. And then another, and then another…

Don’t. Book now and time will bring it to you.

When it does you will not be disappointed.

Early offerings: a waterfall that plunges over cliffs and directly into a rock pool on day 1 of the walk. Good spot to swim. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Having now walked the Otter Trail I can confirm that it is as beautiful as any hike you will encounter, anywhere.

As you go under the wooden arch that marks its start, it’s like jumping onto a chute that enters into another physical world, an encounter with unspoilt nature; the world as it was for centuries before capitalism extended its tentacles to every corner of the world, fed by our appetite for things we can own and consume; ravaging the land, sea, air and all the populations that stood in its way, human and animal.

But before I walk you any further a few facts to help you on your journey.

The Otter Trail is a four-night, five-day hike between the Storms River mouth and Nature’s Valley in the Eastern Cape. On each of the four nights you stay over at the most perfectly located and well-maintained huts, spartan but serviced with wood and clean water. No other mod cons. The two huts sleep only 12 and that’s the number allowed to walk the Otter on any given day.

It is South Africa’s oldest hike and has been walked every day since 1968, with the exception of five months in 2020 when South Africa locked down for Covid-19. It’s physically demanding walking and there’s an age limit for the over-65s.

Official guides say the walk includes more than 7,000 ascending steps, and although this is not a mountain, you ascend more than 2,600m (more than twice the height of Table Mountain!)

The aloneness of the long distance hiker: sea, sky, rock, fynbos and your thoughts. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

I would love to know the histories of the people who dreamed and cut this trail. We take them for granted. But today, the trail is managed and extremely well maintained by the rangers and staff of SANParks. Were there will and vision, it is a model for what could be a much larger ecotourism industry in a country whose diverse natural beauty is unparalleled and in many places untapped. It could be a much bigger employer, integrated with rural communities, weaving in oral history and culture, fostering domestic tourism and taking advantage of the massive growth of interest and participation in outdoor activities that followed the months we were locked in our homes because of Covid.

All that it requires is imagination and commitment.   

But enough of that. Over the five days you walk the Otter Trail you will:

  • Become attuned to the constant presence of sea and perpetual crashing of waves;
  • Become mute and minuscule witness to the rise and set of the sun, the glow of dawn and the subsidence of dusk;
  • Marvel at the grandeur of a river kloof, unannounced, but suddenly upon you as the forest path rounds a corner;
  • Feel the joys of frolicking in a river mouth, the tug of the tide, see waterfalls that crash down cliffs, and natural quartzite viewing points that allow you to cast your eyes back along the ragged outline of the coast;
  • Encounter twisted trees and vines, reaching up to the sun, inching down to the earth, uninhibited by the measure of time, left free over decades to follow their own course and take their own shape. These trees are witness to generations to passing hikers, but blind to human folly and destruction;
  • Feel the press of ancient, hard rock, still resting where they tumbled eons ago, alternating with soft sand;
  • Watch seagulls pedalling the air like bicycle riders, canvassing the coast line; black cormorants perched in patient contemplation of wave and sea patterns; and
  • Maybe be made fearful by a flotilla of stingrays basking in the shallow waters of the Bloukrans River mouth.
A shy sunrise behind the cliff can’t hide its glow from the ocean (view from the Oakhurst hut). (Photo: Mark Heywood)
The view down onto Oakhurst huts, night 3 of the Otter Trail, on the banks of the Lottering River. (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Sunset from the Lottering River mouth. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Quickly, instead of days and time being measured by deadlines and diary schedules, the tides and weather patterns will take over. After your self breaks itself away from the self-induced rush that carries most of our days away in a blur of meetings, it’s amazing how much space time allows us in a day and how you can wallow in it.

The walk is unspoilt.

Unlike other parts of the coast, drift plastic seems less ubiquitous. Perhaps that is because the hike falls within the 60km Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area. Although drought and climate change have surely taken their toll, to the untrained eye the beauty seems to be as it ever was; although I must admit that the lush indigenous forests seemed quiet for such a profusion of flora, the birds that sing do so in solo, drawing the reply of an invisible mate.

The minuteness of being (Bloukrans River crossing). (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Not the little Mermaid; the beach directly outside the Andre Hut (night four). (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Trees that talk: indigenous forests cover the whole length of the Otter Trail, whose path weaves in and out beneath forest canopy. (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Sullen skies make for a moody coastline. (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Sullen skies make for a moody coastline. (Photo: Mark Heywood)
Descending to the Blokrans River; advice to hikers. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

On the last day of walking, sated but still hungry, I wondered how to capture this timeless experience. We have so much beauty. We have poets like Sipho Banda who writes of the mountains of the Southern Drakensberg. But who and where are the William Wordsworths and Samuel Taylor Coleridges of the Wild Coast or the Tsitsikamma, poets who in their writings about the English Lake District sketched a local ecosystem that endures in their poetry centuries later, while at the same time reflecting the rumbling politics of their world. A very different age admittedly.

As I walked through the last indigenous forest and under the finishing arch, pondering re-entry to our cruel world, the last thought I had was that the Otter Trail will be here long after humans have self-destructed; the snaking path where humans once walked to get away from themselves will slowly and surely be reclaimed by nature. In decades ahead walkers may have to face challenges larger than Covid, but this trail will still be there for those seeking solace and clues to the meaning of life. DM/MC/ML

In response to the article Eugene Moll, a reader writes: The architect of the Otter Trail was Robbie (Turkey) Robinson – when he was the scientific officer station at Tsitsikama National Park (NP). He did his PhD through a university in the USA on the inshore marine life there. That was before he was appointed CEO of SANParks which he eventually “left” as, even as an Afrikaner, was considered too “verlig” (liberal).

Turkey was instrumental in four major SANParks achievements pre-1992.

First was the Otter Trail, next the Richtersveld NP that is the first and only park where the local community also have a role to play in management (a “contractual” Park), then the West Coast Park and Table Mountain NP.

Turkey wrote four short books that were to be given, one to each grandchild after he died. He just wanted his grandchildren to know a little of their grandfather. These four books should be “discovered” and published – if his family would agree. For the history of SA I think they are part of our national treasure.  He was a quiet and unassuming person but someone who did a great deal for conservation in SA.

Gallery
Absa OBP

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All Comments 7

  • One of the best experiences I have ever had. Like Mark, I cannot recommend the Otter Trail highly enough. Tough and so breathtakingly beautiful, it’s good to be reminded that we do indeed live in a beautiful country.

  • “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”- John Muir

  • This is an extraordinary walk and I envy Mark for his empty river crossing, having done the crossing when the river was in full flow after heavy rain, at low tide! We had to tie ropes to each other to make sure we all got to the other side.
    What really struck me was how well the million steps were maintained, endlessly up and down…a true reflection of a reserve that is so well looked after.
    This is one adventure that should be, and stay, on everyone’s SA bucket list.

  • You have the late Dr Robbie Robinson, the one-time manager of the Tsitsikamma National Park and later chief executive of SA National Parks, to thank for conceptualisation and construction of the Otter Trail. This from an obituary:
    “He joined what was then the South African National Parks Board in 1966 as a marine biologist and became the first CEO of the newly proclaimed Tsitsikamma National Park.
    “He built the Storms River rest camp. In 1967-68 he and a couple of helpers built a 70m suspension bridge for hikers and the local community across the Storms River mouth. Hanging 7m above the water, it lasted 40 years before being rebuilt.
    “At about the same time he also built the now world-famous Otter Trail, which he designed himself. He walked ahead of his small construction team, marking out the coastal trail with scraps of cloth.”

  • What a beautifully written piece about a truly magical place. Thank you Mark, for reviving memories long sealed and forgotten. You brought back the essence of the Otter trail and your pictures are exquisite. I was aware of climbing and descending but had no idea of the distance covered. I recall (with some embarrassment), the permeating sense of dread for all four days as we approached the Bloukrans river crossing – which turned out to be in ankle deep water! Huge learning about the debilitating waste in the energy of fear. An experience of living in never-ending beauty and now a sense of gratitude. What a privilege to have been able to run, walk, crawl, climb this place of total magic.

  • Thank you for reminding me how enjoyable this trail is. I have walked it twice, the first in 1976, pregnant with my first child. We waded the Bloukraans that time with ease. The second was 12 years ago and we had to swim the Bloukraans, even at low tide. Both trips were memorable, it is truly a magical trail.

  • What a wonderful tribute to the Otter Trail. I have only walked its length once and that was in 1971 when one could simply drive to Storms river mouth and start walking. No reservation needed. Rather foolishly I hiked its length in 24 hours sleeping on the beach at the Bloukrans River mouth. Next morning I had to swim across three times ferrying my 34 pounds of supplies. An unforgettable experience.

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